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Weekly Commentary: No Mystery

Weekly Commentary: No Mystery

January 30 – Financial Times (Sam Fleming): “After putting traders on notice six weeks ago to expect further increases in US interest rates in 2019, the Federal Reserve… executed one of its sharpest U-turns in recent memory. Leaving rates unchanged at 2.25-2.5%, Jay Powell, Fed chairman, unveiled new language that opened up the possibility that the next move could equally be down, instead of up. Forecasts from the Fed’s December meeting that another two rate rises are likely this year now appear to be history. Changes to its guidance were needed, Mr Powell argued, because of ‘cross-currents’ that had recently emerged. Among them were slower growth in China and Europe, trade tensions, the risk of a hard Brexit and the federal government shutdown. Financial conditions had also tightened, he added. Yet the about-face left some Fed-watchers wrongfooted and bemused. Many of those hazards were already perfectly apparent in the central bank’s December meeting, when it lifted rates by a quarter point and kept in place language pointing to further ‘gradual’ increases.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Ip pursued a similar path with his article, “The Fed’s Mysterious Pause.” “Last December, Mr. Powell noted his colleagues thought they’d raise rates two more times this year, from between 2.25% and 2.5%, which was at the lower end of estimates of ‘neutral’—a level that neither stimulates nor holds back growth. On Wednesday, he suggested the Fed could already be at neutral: ‘Our policy stance is appropriate right now. We also know that our policy rate is in the range of the… committee’s estimates of neutral.’ If indeed the Fed is done, that would be a breathtaking pivot. Yet the motivation remains somewhat mystifying: What changed in the past six weeks to justify it?”

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